Originally published at The Columbia Journalism Review on March 14, 2013
A meme that has been bubbling up in the media for months goes something like this: The elderly have it too good. They claim too much of the country's financial resources and will eat their children's--and grandchildren's--breakfast, lunch, and dinner unless Social Security and Medicare are cut. The country can no longer afford to give seniors so much.
Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, is one of many who has given this idea voice. In a pre-Christmas interview on the CBS Evening News he said:
You're going to have to undoubtedly do something to lower people's expectations--the entitlements and what people think they're going to get, because it's not going to--they're not going to get it.
In early March, Stanley Druckenmiller, the hedge fund guru, joined the chorus. He told Bloomberg Television, "I am not against seniors. What I am against is current seniors stealing from future seniors."
There are many others. The Wall Street gods have spoken, and in the past few months, media stories have reflected their opinion, as well as that of the Simpson Bowles Commission, which was appointed by the president three years ago to figure out what to do about the deficit. The commission's recommendations for cutting Medicare and Social Security have made their way into the press and helped shape a powerful story about generational conflict.
As a result, for the most part, the press has been presenting a one-sided picture of the Social Security situation, quite possibly to the detriment of young and the old alike. From other perspectives, the two generations are not in opposition at all, but natural allies, both with common interests in a strong Social Security system.
But you wouldn't know anybody thought that way by reading much of the press, and not just the conservative press.
Jonathan Alter, writing for Bloomberg, argued that the last thing the country needed was a majority of House Democrats signing a letter urging the president to oppose benefit cuts to entitlements. He called the retirement of baby boomers "insanely expensive," and if we don't start talking about reforming social insurance, "grandpa and grandma and their fellow Grateful Dead fans are going to eat all the food on the table."
Ronald Brownstein hits the generational issue head on in the National Journal, using the word "ominous" to describe the "budget's accelerating tilt toward the elderly over the young and toward consumption over investment." He's unhappy that the sequester deal exempts Social Security and Medicaid and "only slightly nicks Medicare" with limited reductions to providers.
On NPR's blog, Alan Greenblatt weights his piece in favor of kids. "Up to this point, young people are on the losing side," the demographer and consultant Neil Howe told him. Save the Children's vice president Mark Shriver says, "the sequester again shows that as a country we're not willing to make an investment in our kids." Greenblatt at least mentions counterarguments, but comes back home to the Greedy Geezers meme.
While it's true that today's young people will eventually grow old themselves, government budgets are about the present. And those who are now old are better protected than children and youth.
Ezra Klein--et tu, Ezra?--ran into a swirl of criticism from his fans when he made a case in his WaPo column that "the most worthwhile kinds of government spending are getting squeezed out." By that he meant education funding, research and development, stimulus, infrastructure investment, and the military. "The sequester," he says "cuts deep into medical research and education, but it doesn't touch Social Security at all."
Those are just a few of the latest examples. Last summer there was another crop. New York Times columnist Bill Keller exhorted his fellow boomers to "make sensible reform of entitlements our generation's cause. Stiffen the spines of our politicians and push lobby groups like A.A.R.P. to climb out of the bunker and lead." City Journal contributing editor Joel Kotkin wrote in the Daily Beast, "No generation has suffered more from the Great Recession than the young. The wealth gap between younger and older Americans now stands as the widest on record." And a few months before that, Esquire came forth with a lengthy piece called "The War Against Youth." "The recession didn't gut the prospects of American young people. The Baby Boomers took care of that," part of the headline proclaimed.
The idea of generational warfare is almost as old as Social Security itself. Back in Eisenhower's time the long knives were out for the program, prompting Ike to write to his brother:
Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.
Those were the days before the Koch Brothers, Peter G. Peterson, and the vast sums they and others lavished on conservative think tanks to provide the intellectual ammo for propelling their ideas into the public's thinking. In 1983, Stuart Butler, now director of the Policy Innovation Center at the Heritage Foundation, and a colleague crafted a plan for the Cato Institute called "Achieving a "Leninist' Strategy," which described in detail how to attack Social Security. It recommended an educational campaign "to gain support of key individuals in the media as well as to win over vital constituencies for political reform." In the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, opponents of Social Security had based their attacks on ideology--the value of limited government--but those arguments gained little traction. By the late 1970s they had fashioned a new argument: Social Security was not affordable and had to be radically changed, and it was all because of the boomers.
The media took this frame seriously. In 1996, a CBS Evening News correspondent told viewers to "cross your fingers that Social Security will be saved." In the mid-1990s, the Cato Institute and the Concord Coalition--a group founded by Peterson and others--worked hard to convince the press that Social Security was on the ropes. They sent out a steady stream of faxes, op-eds, and issue briefs to journalists while feeding them lunch and meeting with editorial boards. Martha Phillips, the executive director of the Concord Coalition at the time, reflected on the groups' success with The Washington Post:
When we first started up they weren't singing our tune. We sat down and explained why we felt so strongly about the (deficit reduction) program. They have just been reformed on this since then. They are saying entitlements have to be part of the solution. It's like they're reading right out of our playbook.
Michael Tanner, who directed Cato's Social Security project, observed : "The media have been very sympathetic." Dean Baker, then an economist with the liberal Economic Policy Institute, now the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, put it differently: "The media have closed off discussion."